Democratic two-thirds majority in Oregon not out of reach
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon State Senate President Peter Courtney stood at the dais in March. He was exhausted, furious and disheartened as he looked at the abandoned chairs, usually occupied by his Republican colleagues in the legislative chamber.
“This is a failed short session. I cannot believe that,” Courtney said. He sighed and then began to raise his voice. “This is a failed short session because 11 elected officials, who are state senators, would not come do their job.”
Although most lawmakers were in attendance, it didn’t matter. The Republican walkout meant the Senate had not reached quorum to vote and as a result more than one hundred bills perished.
“This session is over,” Courtney said. “This session is adjourned, sadly. Tragically.”
In 2018 Democrats won a three-fifths supermajority in the Oregon House and Senate. Although Democrats celebrated, thinking they had a clear path to pursue goals on policies surrounding climate change and gun control, they quickly learned the limits of this power when Republican lawmakers boycotted and refused to show up to work in the Capitol.
Political experts say that will change if Democrats gain enough new seats in November to increase to a “super supermajority,” otherwise known as a two-thirds supermajority, making Republican walkouts ineffective as Democrats would be able to meet quorum even if Republicans are not in attendance.
“Everyone knows the stakes are really high,” said Priscilla Southwell, a political science professor at the University of Oregon. “The Republicans, I would think, are quite concerned and they don’t want to be irrelevant and ignored and the Democrats are quite concerned that much of their legislative agenda has not gone anywhere
Currently Democrats hold majority of the Senate, 18 seats to the 12 Republican seats. Sixteen seats are up for re-election this year, nine of which are currently occupied by a Republican.
The House also has a Democratic three-fifths supermajority with 38 seats blue and 22 red. All 60 seats are up for re-election.
Southwell said while she expects Democrats to retain three-fifths supermajority it is “certainly in the realm of possibility” for it to increase to two-thirds.
“There’s a real chance that the democrats might pick up just enough seats to have a quorum proof supermajority,” said Christopher McKnight Nichols, an associate professor at Oregon State University’s School of History, Philosophy, and Religion.
Quorum rules say two-thirds of lawmakers -- 20 senators must be on the Senate floor and 40 representatives on the House floor-- for votes to take place. Oregon is one of only four states that require two-thirds of lawmakers to be present for any work to be done, instead of a simple majority.
“The Democratic (Party) has a modest number of possible pickups which could generate a quorum-call proof supermajority in 2021 given how close the numbers are and the popularity of Democrats across the state, particularly in a presidential election year in which we expect a higher turnout,” Nichols said.
This would make a Republican walkout ineffective.
Nichols said that recently, walkouts — a tool made available by the Oregon Constitution — have arguably become the Republicans “preferred technique to stop legislation,”
“What has happened that has been really shocking to me as an observer, a historian of American democracy, is the rise of the walkout and this anti-governance technique being deployed by state legislators,” Nichols said. “It’s not to accomplish their ends but rather to accomplish no ends at all.”
A series of walkouts by Republican senators began in May 2019 to block a school funding tax. They returned after Democrats scrapped bills on gun control and another that would have limited religious exemptions from vaccines.
The next month, Republicans again did not show up to the Capitol in order to stop a cap-and-trade bill designed to institute a carbon tax in state. During that time Gov. Kate Brown sent state police to bring the absent Republican senators back to the Capitol, and in response some senators fled the state.
Walkouts continued in 2020 when Republicans from both the House and Senate did not attend short sessions.
Democrat lawmakers in Oregon have also held walkouts, most notably in 1971, 1995 and 2001.
“I guarantee you other states are gonna start copying this and that’s how dangerous this is,” Courtney said earlier this year.
In May 2019, minority Democrats in the Tennessee House walked out over a Medicaid bill. In 2011, Indiana House Democrats staged a five-week walkout to block Republican action on public education and labor unions. In 2003, Texas Democrats had two dramatic walkouts over redistricting, first in the House, then the Senate, only to return and see the bills they opposed pass anyway.
If Democrats win a two-thirds supermajority it may not only put topics and bills surrounding climate change, gun laws, statewide homelessness emergency and vaccines back on the table, but it could also mean a push for a constitutional amendment to get rid of the two-thirds quorum.
Democrats have discussed a change in the state’s quorum rules before.
Earlier this year Courtney said he would consider calling a special session in the future to change the state’s quorum rules, this was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic that since has taken up much of lawmakers’ time and energy.
“One caveat about a quorum rule change is that, not anytime in near future, but should Democrats ever lose control again, if they change the quorum rule it could come back to haunt them,” Southwell said.